A life without plastic: Why it’s going to take more than a few incremental changes to save our planet

Over a year on from giving up plastic for Lent, Rosie Paterson discusses the very real danger that we face should we not make drastic changes to our plastic consumption, and fast.

More than a year has passed since my ill-fated – and well-documented – attempt to give up plastic for Lent. I would love to say that I’m now living a wonderfully bohemian, plastic-free and sustainable life, but that would be a lie.

This year alone, it’s taken the planting of numerous trees, somewhere in Devon, to offset my four tonne carbon-flying footprint. And, as I’m writing this, I’m eating nut butter out of a plastic pot (albeit a pot that’s fully recyclable).

It would be cynical, however, to ignore the fantastic progress that has been made, around the globe, in recent months.

In the UK, single-use plastic bag sales have fallen by 86% since the 5p charge was brought in, in 2015. London has introduced a new Ultra Low Emission Zone, in an attempt to curb the use of the most polluting diesel vehicles and The Guardian has publicly encouraged its contributors to start using language that more accurately describes the global environmental crisis. ‘Climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ for example, is now favoured over ‘climate change.’ Sainsbury’s recently became the first supermarket to shun plastic bags for fruit, veg and bakery items and Waitrose is trialling a ‘bring your own container’ system, for selected groceries.

Plastic straws washed up on beaches are a depressingly-common sight.

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Each step in the right direction is accompanied by the findings of hard-hitting, scientific research, dominating the headlines on an almost daily basis. In May, we finally received conclusive evidence that discarded plastic is having a negative impact on humankind. Unsurprisingly, it is the poorest parts of society most affected, with a staggering 400,000 to 1,000,000 people in developing countries dying every year, because of diseases and accidents linked to badly managed waste.

We are now unable to turn a street corner, a page, or open up a new Internet tab without being confronted by the word sustainable, in big shiny letters. It’s the latest trend that goes beyond plastic production – a hot word that companies and brands are desperate to align themselves with. But, like other trends – fashion, social and political – we cannot allow this one to fade into the ether.

‘This is a problem that will take a lifetime – my lifetime, your children’s and their children’s lifetime – to solve’

Because this isn’t a problem that we can solve in one, short SS19 season.

For all we have to celebrate (and celebrate we should), 2019 has already seen the planet’s Co2 levels jump to the highest level in human history and a plastic bag photographed at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (a chasm on the ocean floor so large it could conceal Everest).

This is a problem that will take a lifetime – my lifetime, your children’s and their children’s lifetime – to solve. We are standing, according to a UN report, on the brink of Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

The incremental changes that you and I have made so far are fantastic and there’s a lot to be said for the old adage, ‘every little helps’, but what we need now, what we must lobby for is wide-sweeping legislation.

Investment in renewable energy and energy storage systems; the chance to rebuild soil fertility; education reform to ensure we adequately inform and inspire the next generation.

It is a mammoth task, which really isn’t helped by our Government’s decision to commit to a 2050 target of net zero greenhouse emissions and then proceed with the opening of new coal mines and fracking sites.

Thankfully, there’s an ever-growing handful of celebrity’s, public figures and vocal environmentalists prepared to read them the riot act: Greta Thunberg, David Mayer de Rothschild, Bill Gates, David Attenborough…

I’m mildly concerned about how many more harrowing documentaries David Attenborough has it in him to narrate, though. Who on earth will replace him as the face of this monumental push for change?

‘As long as we continue to close our eyes, cover our ears and hope that someone else takes responsibility, we allow the health of our planet to decline even further’

It cannot just be me that’s still in shock following that indescribably awful walrus scene, in Netflix’s Our Planet. Faced with a lack of suitable ice shelves on which to rest, the animals are forced to haul their cumbersome bodies onto land and up rocky cliffs, from which they then fall, in hideous slow motion, to their deaths. After it’s release, Netflix were forced to defend the devastating footage, but to what end? Not watching it; censoring it; looking at pretty pictures of happy dolphins instead – unsurprisingly, these things will not make the problem go away. As long as global warming and pollution continues unabated, the walrus’ will keep falling to their horrific and avoidable deaths.

As long as we continue to close our eyes, cover our ears and hope that someone else takes responsibility, we allow the health of our planet – our only viable home – to decline even further. We irrevocably alter the future of mankind and every living thing we share this planet with. We allow all life, as we know it, to hurtle towards a very uncertain, dark abyss.

I, for one, do not want to sit back and let that happen.